Related dairy machinery also collectible
Left: Dennis Nickerson has his hand on the crank that drove this 1930s Montgomery Ward & Co. cream separator. Raw milk was poured into the large bowl, the crank turned, and eventually cream came out of one spout and skim milk out of the other.
The cream separator represents another step of the milking process. Early ones, like Dennis Nickerson's early Montgomery Ward & Co. settling separator, were static machines. Milk was poured in and allowed to settle. After the cream rose to the top, a bottom spigot was opened and the milk drained off. Mostly cream was left. "A separator like this probably wasted some of the cream," Dennis says. "The milk running off disturbed the cream and mixed some of it with the milk again." The resulting skim milk was dross, fed to calves, pigs, cats, anything that would eat it, including chickens, and on at least one farm, Dennis says, a pony.
Later cream separators were hand-cranked. One type contained a centrifugal force bell that rang until the hand crank was turned fast enough to get the separator up to a speed adequate to separate the cream and milk. Only then would the noise cease. This one was probably unpopular with children, as it was immediately obvious when they weren't doing their jobs. Dennis recalls another model that used the second hand on a big wall clock. When the separator reached 23 revolutions per half-minute, milk was poured in, making the handle turn harder. Later, of course, electric cream separators were offered.
Cream separators came in different sizes. Many, like the collectibles most commonly seen today, were large. Tabletop models were offered as well. The Nickersons have a tabletop De Laval in their collection. This type was used when a family had just one or two cows, with very little milk to separate.
Home cream and milk pasteurizers became popular during the 1950s. Prior to that, Dennis says, milk and cream were never pasteurized. "People drank the milk straight from the cow, but after people started getting sick from the milk," Dennis says, "a lot of people wanted to pasteurize their own milk."
The problem, it was eventually discovered, was the joints on the milk buckets. Bacteria invaded the joints and could not be washed out, so jointed buckets were outlawed. "I know there was a time when they were thinking dairy farmers weren't going to be able to milk with milking machines," he says, "until they came up with a process where they could form stainless steel into buckets." The Nickerson collection includes a Montgomery Ward & Co. pasteurizer.
Another required item for milking was the Babcock Milk Tester, a small centrifuge used to determine butterfat content of the cream at creameries. "Creamery managers would pour cream into a little glass vial and put it in the centrifuge with sulfuric acid, spin it, and the butterfat would jump into the neck of the measuring bottle," Dennis explains. The creamery worker then measured the amount of butterfat with a caliper. The higher the butter-fat content, the bigger the dairy farmer's check. The Babcock Milk Tester was also used to test the home separator's efficiency.